Karen HallIn defence of orange

“Oh god no, I don’t do orange”.  You won’t believe how often I hear that uttered. There she stands, clasping a pot brimming with the most beautiful foliage, but the moment it is discovered that at some stage in the year an orange flower will appear, all other attributes the poor plant exhibits are forgotten.

Ligularia dentata foliage

The plant in question is the stunning Ligularia dentata – a monster of a perennial, with the most luscious leathery round leaves, often veined with red. Once a year, in summer, it produces a bunch of bright orange rudbeckia-like flowers which soon reduce to seedheads akin to a bunch of fuzzy nuts.  I cannot believe that an aversion to orange can be so strong as to outweigh the fact a plant is otherwise perfect in all respects.

My Atomic coffee maker

I had better come clean and admit that I love orange. I wear it often, am drawn towards anything even slightly retro that is orange and I love orange flowers. I adore my 1950’s aluminium Atomic Coffee Maker, but if I could find an affordable orange one on Ebay, my life would be complete. I don’t waste any time worrying about what “goes with orange” in the garden, because it is such a subjective topic. Just who sets those rules about what looks good together?

After the lady in question spoke those words, I really began to notice how many orange plants we have in the garden. Although it is not a dominant colour in the garden, it certainly stands out, and if there were more orange plants, I would gladly welcome them.

Geum ‘Tangerine’

Geum ‘Tangerine’ flowers non-stop from late winter to late autumn, its blooms swaying well above its foliage and ultimately reaching over a metre tall. It is a simple, almost daisy-type flower, and the effect is quite natural – as if it were part of a meadow. I have only one plant, and have never been successful propagating it, so I treasure it. I am already plotting its escape. I have had other orange geums in the garden, small rockery ones, but my love of self-seeding angelicas has brought about their demise.

Euphorbia mellifera

In the same bed I have Euphorbia griffithii – and although it is as much red as orange, I’m blurring the edges to include it here. Again, it is a plant that polarises people, but it is one of my favourite euphorbias. Who couldn’t love its red rimmed foliage for a start – and red stems for that matter? And when it all comes together with tomato red/orange flowers, the picture is complete. It’s certainly no shrinking violet, and at about a metre tall it doesn’t pretend to be. Euphorbia mellifera – although not as striking – also boasts orange flowers and has the added bonus of a faint honey scent.

Kniphofia northiae and Euphorbia griffithii

Think of orange and kniphofias spring to mind. Oddly, they are commonly named red hot pokers, but whoever came up with that must have been slightly colour blind, as they are much more orange than red (and these days white, green and yellow as well). One of the giants of the genus is Kniphofia northiae has leaves akin to an Agave but flowers typically conical and a nice mixture of orange and yellow – enough to bring on the shivers in the faint-hearted. At Wychwood the honeyeaters adore it, and one of our great pleasures is to watch them feed whilst balancing upright on the flowerheads.

Kniphofia thomsonii var snowdeni is more like a watsonia than a kniphofia, but there is no confusion about its colour – it is orange through and through. One of my favourite cut flowers, it spreads rapidly to form colonies of lanky foliage from which arises its luminescent flowerspikes. Again, the honeyeaters love it, but this time they have their work made more difficult by quite lax stems and downward facing individual flowers. Often I feel a little embarrassed for them as they struggle to feed – the reward must be worth it though and they relentlessly persist.

Mecanopsis cambrica

Charming little Welsh poppies – Meconopsis cambrica – seed profusely wherever they see fit, and although they are often yellow, the orange is my favourite. There are few arrangements as stunningly simple as a posy of poppies, and they last surprisingly well for a flower that appears so delicate. I did have a double one once, but it soon died out and the single is much more pleasing anyhow.

As I mowed the lawn yesterday evening, the sun was shining through the burnished orange blossoms of Paeonia delavayi – the seeds of which were given to me many, many years ago by Annabel Scott of Dunedin. Only one of the plants turned out to be this colour – the others all a definite red – but this one is truly stunning.

Spiraea ‘Goldflame’ and Stipa arundinaceae

The foliage of Spirea ‘Goldflame” may not be completely orange, but there are definite hints as it re-emerges for spring and again when autumn comes, and the intensity of the orange strengthens the more sun it is given. It is one of the best shrubs available in my opinion, and if it never flowered I wouldn’t care. Oddly enough, its almost orange foliage doesn’t seem to put off the anti-orange brigade – perhaps it is only orange flowers that offend them.  A case in point is Stipa arundinacea, the lovely ‘Pheasants Grass’ that evokes autumn all year round. No-one complains about the orange in its foliage, but it is very definitely there. They are less convinced with Libertia peregrinans however, and rows of plants remain unbought in our nursery. It is, most definitely, orange.

I am sad at the rapid demise of Heuchera ‘Amber Waves’ soon after I purchased it. I loved the coppery orange autumnal toned foliage and instantly got carried away with myself and planted it in nearly every shady spot I had, excited by how it seemed to lift the beds. Being an amber lover I was seduced by the name, but soon realised it was less amber and more waves – as in waving goodbye. To me, at least. I’m not sure what I did wrong, but whatever I did, at least I did it well.

Later in the season there will be the rudbeckias, achilleas and heleniums, and even some self-sown nasturtiums if our frosts are kind. There are the incredible seedheads of Euonymus – the Spindle Trees – now there’s a colour combination to make your grandmother shudder; only Mother Nature would combine bright orange and hot pink and get away with it. The pretty berries of the rowans (Sorbus) and cotoneaster, the seeds of Iris foetidissimma, and abundant orange rosehips and crabapples all compliment autumnal leaves of maples, fothergilla, parrotia and nothofagus. How could you cope without it?

Live dangerously.  Plant orange.

Geum ‘Tangerine’

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Karen Hall

About Karen Hall

Karen runs Wychwood Gardens and Nursery in northern Tasmania with her partner, Peter Cooper and is Tasmanian Chair of Open Gardens Australia. Mole Creek, Tasmania

10 thoughts on “In defence of orange

  1. I like you Karen also love orange. It often has a luminousity about it that you don’t get with other plants. When used frugally it is a stand out colour with green, although it goes with just about any colour in the garden when not overdone.
    Maybe those who don’t like orange have seen it used in gardens that are too gaudy – where there is actually too much colour and the orange has the biggest impact. Who knows, but I also search for orange plants that give that big bang every now and then in the garden.

  2. Orange is the BEST. Red is way too ‘look at me, look at me’ to sit comfortably in most gardens whereas orange is warm, vibrant and happy. It zings with blue and purple, tones down reds and works wonders with hot pink. I’ll do a post on a subtropical to cool subtropical selection of my favourite oranges soon!

  3. I, too, am an orange person, Karen. I bless my red hot pokers in winter when they burst forth in bright firey profusion when all else in the garden is dormant and dull. I call them my Bette Midler blooms, all showy and brassy. And I am currently in awe of the brilliance of my blooming poinciana tree which has flowered in red/orange with extra dazzle this year after a long, dry winter. The contrast of orange with green, particularly dark green, is pleasing and tropical. Makes me think of Bali.
    I picked a bunch of day lilies this week, purple, white, pink, yellow and orange and the one everyone admired when they came into the house was — the orange one !!!!

  4. Hi Karen, I love your oranges too. Wondered if you have any ideas about Beasties that destroy Ligularia? I bought a lovely Ligularia Britt Marie Crawford (the one with the purple leaves) but before I could get it from the pot to the garden, something destroyed it. I tried to save it with a sprinkling of slug pellets but to no avail. Any clues?

    • It must have been slugs or snails, what a pity. They do seem to love it, especailly in spring when it is particularly succulent. Sounds as if the bait was too late, although it is pretty tough, perhaps it will spring back. Fingers crossed for you.

      • Unfortunately it keeled over completely so there will be no spring resurrection, I’m afraid. Perhaps, if I try again, I should use some slug pellets right from the beginning (though I do try to avoid them if I can).

        • I dislike snail pellets too, although these days I use one called Multi-Guard which isn’t methaldahyde (sp?) based so I figure it’s not so nasty. I only ever drop a few pellets at a time, my motto being ‘use less and more often’. Good luck – it’s worth persevering for.

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